The Yard Bird

White ibis (Eudocimus albus)

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, white ibises tend to feed in large groups, seeking out shallow wetlands or flooded fields in which to forage. Given the right water depth, or soil that’s sufficiently wet, they’re perfectly content to dine even at urban parks or on lawns, probing the ground for the  grubs, grasshoppers, and crawfish that make up a large part of their diet.

Still, I hardly expected to find one in my parking lot. When I rounded a corner and discovered this fine fellow enjoying an afternoon snack, I happened to have my camera in the car with me, so I stopped, backed up, rolled down the window, and casually took a few photos.

Only later did I discover that the background, a combination of black metal fencing and green grass, made my visitor look like a prisoner. He wasn’t guilty of a crime, and as far as I know never was apprehended or charged, but he still ended up looking like a yardbird.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Miss Ima Would Be Pleased

Herbertia lahue filling the lawn at the Varner-Hogg plantation

While an assortment of wildflowers strews vibrant spring color across the Texas landscape, pastel lavenders and pinks do their own part to decorate the season.

One of my favorites, Herbertia lahue, or prairie nymph, is a small and delicate member of the iris family. The flowers appear for only two or three weeks, and each flower lasts for only one day; finding an entire colony at the Varner-Hogg plantation outside West Columbia was as lucky as it was delightful.

Originally owned by Martin Varner, a member of Stephen F. Austin‘s Old Three Hundred and a veteran of the Texas Revolution, the property’s last owner was James Stephen Hogg, the first native Texan to be elected governor. Donated to the state in 1958 by Governor Hogg’s daughter Ima, the historic site provides a view of plantation life in Texas between 1835 and 1850, the time of the plantation’s greatest productivity.

Contrary to jokes told even during her lifetime, Ima Hogg didn’t have a sister named Ura, but she was a remarkable woman and a great philanthropist. After helping to found the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1913, she became president of its board in 1917. Elected to the Houston Board of Education in 1943, she arranged symphony concerts in public schools and worked to increase the number of music and art classes available to students.

Eventually she donated Bayou Bend, her home in the River Oaks neighborhood of Houston, to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. The antiques-filled house and formal gardens are balanced by woodlands filled with native trees and shrubs: a testament to her conviction that the same  plants that grew wild on the plantation at the edge of Varner Creek should have a place to thrive in the heart of Houston. I doubt there are prairie nymphs at Bayou Bend, but out at the old plantation they’re doing just fine.

Herbertia lahue near the site of the old sugar mill at the Varner-Hogg plantation

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Stars on the Prairie, Stars in the Hills

It didn’t twinkle, but this delightful blue star caught my eye nonetheless. I’d seen the flower in the past, and recognized it as Amsonia tabernaemontana, a member of the Apocynaceae, or dogbane family.

The plant’s genus name honors 18th century Virginia physician Dr. Charles Amson, while its interesting specific epithet (tabernaemontana) recalls Jakob Theodor von Bergzabern (1525-1590), who Latinized his name as Tabernaemontanus, or ‘mountain tavern.’  Also a physician, botanist, and herbalist, Tabernaemontanus has been considered the father of German botany.

The native range of the blue star which bears his name lies well beyond Texas; it can be found as far north as Illinois, and as far east as North and South Carolina. Looking beyond my single star, I found plants bearing its extraordinary multi-colored buds, as well as a few scattered plants covered in blooms.

As I was admiring the flowers, an older man stopped his truck on the road and called to me. “You think those flowers are pretty? Go on down the road a couple of miles to where they’ve burned the prairie, and you’ll see hundreds of them.”

He wasn’t wrong. In the past, I’d witnessed the emergence of thousands of spider lilies after a prescribed burn, but I wasn’t prepared for acres of blue stars, on both sides of the road.

In places, the contrast between the scorched land and the resurgent flowers was breathtaking.

Blue star nectar attracts ruby-throated hummingbirds, carpenter bees, and hummingbird moths, but on that day it was the least skippers (Ancyloxypha numitor) that fluttered by the dozens through the flowers.

The blue stars I found on the coastal prairie aren’t the only Amsonia species in Texas. Amsonia ciliata, sometimes known as fringed bluestar, thrives in dry, open woods or chalky hills; these were photographed between Medina and Vanderpool along Farm-to-Market road 337. The distinctively narrow leaves, as well as slightly shorter and more rounded petals, make identifying the species relatively easy.

Like Amsonia tabernaemontana, the fringed bluestar seems to draw clouds of butterflies. Here, a Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) spreads its long, narrow wings over one of our prettiest Texas wildflowers: the perfect way to spend a spring afternoon.

 

Comments always are welcome.